The DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) by Kody Keplinger

The DUFF: the designated ugly fat friend.  The one girl in a group that’s just not “as pretty” as the others.  DUFF: it’s a “real” thing, you know.  You can look it up on Urban Dictionary, where it’s been an entry since 2003.  The DUFF, the girl in any group who’s just not as pretty, not as skinny, not as noticeable, not as special as the friends she’s with. And, regardless of the group, regardless of the situation, you already (and always) know who the DUFF is…don’t you?  She’s you.

“For a girl with such a fat ass, I felt pretty invisible.”

FINALLY, you are saying to yourself SHE’S GOING TO WRITE ABOUT A FAT BOOK (AS PROMISED) AT HER FAT BLOG.  IT’S ABOUT TIME!

Well, about that . . .

But!  But!  It says “fat” right there, in the title!  Yet one of the things that works about The DUFF is that we don’t really know if our protagonist, Bianca, is “actually” fat.  And one of the things that doesn’t just work but that makes The DUFF brilliant is that it still manages to be about the complicated and often painful politics of body image.  Bianca might be fat.  She might not be.  The DUFF challenges readers to ask: what does fat look like and what does fat mean anyway?

The DUFF starts one night out when Bianca is out with her friends.  She is approached by Wesley, school hottie and well-known player, who attempts to chat her up so her friends will like him.  Why would that work?  Because, as Wesley explains, Bianca is The Duff among her friends.  She knows it and they know it, he assures her.   If they see him talking to her, why, they’ll think he’s sensitive and kind for deigning to talk to her and probably make out with him.  Bianca, naturally insulted, throws her Cherry Coke in his face and stalks off.

Of course, you can probably guess where this is headed.

One of the things that works the best about this book is that though many plot developments seem inevitable and predictable (Bianca and Wesley’s hostility is also chemistry?  You don’t say!) Kiplinger still manages to give them an extra dimension, something just a little different than what you thought you guessed.

Like I said, we don’t know “how fat” Bianca is, but we do get to hear some of her thoughts on how fat she feels.  She refers to herself as having “big thighs” (p. 12), as being “chubby” (p.39),  and as having a “fat ass” (p. 139). But, again, Kiplinger knows that everyone feels that way sometimes, that feeling like that doesn’t always describe how we actually look.  Is this a book about a fat girl?  Kinda.  But it’s also a book about how society sometimes makes you feel like “a fat girl” by making you feel like “fat” is the worst of who you are.

Another nice touch: Bianca’s best friends, Casey and Jessica, also have insecurities about their looks.  Though Wesley opens by telling Bianca she’s the DUFF, Casey and Jessica are only human.  At one point, Casey protests SHE’S the DUFF.  Casey thinks she’s “Sasquatch” (p. 44) … but tall girls are all models, right?  They never have anything to worry about! Kiplinger knows that’s not true, and she knows that’s the heart of the DUFF.  One particularly nice, subtle moment comes when Bianca says something dismissive to Casey about the girls on the cheerleading squad, a squad Casey happens to be a member of:

“…He wouldn’t even date a girl on the Skinny Squad–“

“I really hate it when you call us that.” (p. 190)

Such a nice touch!  Slamming of the other cheerleaders who have “skinny” bodies doesn’t pass without comment.  Casey lets Bianca know that makes her uncomfortable, that the language is reductive and hurtful.  In less than 20 words and without beating you over the head with it, Kiplinger gets the point across, loud and clear.

So, Bianca finds herself pulled into a quickly escalating physical relationship with Wesley in an attempt to get through some rough personal times. (again, an refreshingly honest detail: sometimes, we use physical and sexual intimacy in a way that’s not always healthy or fair.  But it feels good and it makes us feel connected.)  They banter, bicker, have sex, and start to scratch each other’s surfaces.  But can they ever be more than just “enemies-with-benefits?”

(This is one of the book’s less believable parts: it’s so honest about sex that when the plot starts to veer off to “and the guy you have random hook-ups with could totally turn into awesome boyfriend material if you just stick it out and give him a shot!!!” it feels a little unrealistic.  Yeah, that happens, but, in my experience, not that often.  But this is, in many ways, a romance novel so it’s not entirely jarring or unexpected within the genre.)

The relationship between Bianca and Wesley is good, don’t get me wrong.  For one thing: their sexual relationship is sizzling and integral to their relationship as a whole. (This is one of very few YA book I can think of that discusses cunnilingus.  [maybe the only non-lesbian one?] And discusses it in a way that seems totally believable and real to a teenage girl’s mind.) No hand-holding here, Edward Cullen!  The way the book deals with sex is definitely for mature readers but it’s also good to see YA fiction moving beyond the billowing curtains.  And Bianca and Wesley’s banter is good too: natural, unforced, and kind of mean in all the best ways.  So are the moments when they start to really connect.  She stands up to him, calls him on bullshit, and doesn’t let him treat her like crap.  He likes her more because of that.  That’s believable, that works.

But, for me, what makes The DUFF really work is Bianca’s relationship with her girlfriends, some other girls at school, and herself.  This is a feminist book.  It’s a book about owning your identity, about not feeling bad for feeling good about sex, a book about rejecting “sexist” labels and words that tear girls down.  (yes, Kiplinger uses the word sexist!  HURRAH!)

Reading The DUFF and not knowing how ugly or fat Bianca “really” is doesn’t just show how subjective and individual measures like that are.  Keplinger knows it helps readers understand that everyone feels like the DUFF sometimes.  Perhaps that seems a little simplistic, but I think it’s a message teen readers NEED to hear.

Hell, I think it’s a message we ALL need to hear.

Recommended for: Language and sexual situations make this one for older teens only.  I recommend this as a first purchase for public libraries and for teens in grades 10-12.  I think this has the potential to be one of those books teen girls pass around from friend to friend.

A NOTE ABOUT THE COVER!

You’ll note that my post features two covers.  The one of the left is a picture I took the ARC cover.  The one one the right is the one that’s shown on Amazon, Kiplinger’s site, etc.  I IMPLORE YOU, POPPY, PLEASE USE THE ONE ON THE LEFT.  Not because the girl on the left is “fat” (maybe she is, maybe she isn’t…which fits the text!) but because the cover on the right seems all wrong for the book.  Funky eyeshadow?  Blowing a bubble with bubblegum? What does that have to do with anything?  It seems almost tween-ish.  AND THIS IS NOT A TWEEN BOOK.  That model looks almost flippant and uninterested.  The girl on the left is looking right at you: up close and unblinking.  I can practically see the smirk on her lips.  She’s Bianca.

Comment for a Chance to WIN A COPY OF THIS BOOK!

I hope you can’t wait to read this book!  It doesn’t come out until September 7, but after ALA I ended up with two advance reading copies.  (thanks to Little & Brown!)  I knew that meant I had to give one away!  So, as I did with Some Girls Are, I’m going to use random.org to select a random winner from the comments.  It could be you!

All you have to do is leave a comment with your thoughts about the word DUFF and you’re entered. (details: contest is open until August 12, US entries only please, don’t forget to use an e-mail address when you comment so I can contact you.) And if you don’t win,  don’t forget to go into your local library and request they buy a copy.

In the meantime, I suggest everyone take a moment to embrace their inner DUFF, the first step in working towards letting go of any power a word like that might have over you.

We *are* all The DUFF.

And that’s OK.

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